Stopping Stanford's slow-mesh RPO offense atop No. 18 Washington's to-do list in Week 4
The 18th-ranked Washington Huskies open conference play against Stanford this weekend. All eyes will be on the UW offense a week after quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and the bevy of skill talent the Huskies can throw at teams just took apart the Michigan State secondary. Washington’s offense is one of the most explosive units in college football.
It’s quick-twitch. Boom, boom, boom, and you’re down 29-8. The Spartans learned that the hard way.
On the other side of the football, though, is an offense that trades quickness for precision. Against USC two weekends ago, Stanford unveiled a slow-mesh RPO offense that closely resembled the one Wake Forest made famous. The Cardinal didn’t tip their hand in the opener against Colgate — they didn’t need to — and then had a bye week after the USC game. UW has one game to go on, but it has to be ready.
“I guess everybody’s got RPOs these days,” said UW defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell this week. “Honestly, it’s just a little different version of an RPO where they’re down on the running back for a long time. When you have got an elite quarterback and you’re able to hang and read safety structure really well, he does a great job with that.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw went to Wake Forest this offseason to ask for some pointers on the slow mesh. He dove into tape and then he and quarterback Tanner McKee worked to instill it.
The quarterback and running back ride the mesh point — where the ball is handed off — as long as possible while the quarterback reads his key waiting for the defense to tip its hand. McKee will watch what the safety commits to, then decides which to attack. It’s a slow burn and it requires precision on the part of the offensive line; if McKee pulls the ball and looks to pass, the line has to make sure it isn’t too far downfield when he does.
Though the Cardinal lost the debut game for the new attack, it wasn’t for lack of productivity. Four turnovers derailed things, two of which came inside the red zone. The Cardinal moved the ball on the Trojan defense, running for 221 yards, the most the Cardinal had gained in a single game since Nov. 10, 2018. They also picked up 33 first downs, the most in a single game in over 20 years.
“That style of RPO really puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” said Shaw. “They have to make a decision, and we’re buying some time for the quarterback to make his decision.
“We have a quarterback who can see over everybody, and he’s a great decision-maker. He’s got a quick release so he can pull it and, without a lot of windup, he can still throw the ball down the field. I’m excited about it. More importantly, our quarterback has a great feel for it. I thought we did well and we can do even better.”
After an offseason of love from NFL Draft experts calling McKee the top pro prospect in the West, McKee is off to a modest start to his junior season. He’s completed 42 of his 62 pass attempts for 528 yards and three touchdowns against three picks. Morrell was asked how the Huskies go about defending him.
“(McKee) is not an overly mobile threat, but when he’s gotta make a play, he can make a play with his legs a little bit,” Morrell said. “The biggest thing is making him move off his spot and get him uncomfortable and not letting him have great vision down the field because he does a good job of reading both pre-snap and post-snap safety coverages back there so I think it’s critical to be able to show him different pictures.”
UW (3-0) and Stanford (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) kick off against each other Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PT on FS1.